Volume 74, Number 16 | August 18 - 24 , 2004


Theater for the New City
“Code Orange: On the M15”
Central Park Bandshell
Sun, August 22, 2 p.m.

Grappling with Iraq, racism, health care, you name it

By Jerry Tallmer

Cast of “Code Orange: On the M15,” Theater for the New City’s annual borough touring street extravaganza.

On the way down to the East Village on the M15, the bus driver was having a problem with a wheelchair passenger. Not with the lady in the wheelchair herself, but with her dithering companion, who was unable to guide the wheelchair into the position where it could be secured.

With a groan of resignation he climbed up out of his driver’s seat and took care of the matter.

Three-quarters of an hour later, I see that same bus driver — well, one very like him, played by the redoubtable Michael David Gordon — maneuvering his double-jointed M15 uptown with a full haul of difficult passengers, including a woman (actress Grace Gitten) who forcefully proclaims: “I don’t believe in movin’ to no back’a no bus since Rosa Parks sat down! I don’t go to the back of anything!”

There is also, among the general riff and raff, a woman (Mary Cunningham) who cannot insert her Metrocard the right way, so the driver has to do it for her. When the card shows “Out of funds” she waves a $5 bill around and asks if anyone aboard can change it. Other passengers include a very, very pregnant female (Grace Edwards); a gay guy who’s “schvitzing” in the heat (Georgio Handman); kids squeezing this way and that; and, of course, a wide assortment of bellowers on cell phones.

As I’m seated in the middle of E. 10th Street on two milk crates, one atop the other, watching all this, I learn that a New York City bus driver is properly called a “bus operator,” and that one of those cumbersome double-jointed vehicles, like two elephants linked together, is properly called an “articulated” bus.

Just to my left a five-piece band, led by Joseph Vernon Banks at the keyboard and lit up by the cozening trumpet of a young man who goes by the name of Satish, is making everyone feel ready for anything, even childbirth.

On all sides of me there are people, a couple of hundred of them, also seated on milk crates, or folding chairs, plus at least another hundred people standing on both sides of the street. One of them, in the doorway of the Vinyl Market at 242 East 10th Street, is standing there, beaming benignly, looking upon her handiwork and her brood.

Her name is Crystal Field. She is wearing a man’s tired gray suit, shirt open at the neck, tie loosely dangling to her knees, and presently she will mount the stage in the role of a fellow running for City Council and harangue the crowd — that’s us — on how we should improve our neighborhood, our city, our country, and ourselves.

She is the writer of this show, the director of this show, the co-creator and director of Theater for the New City, and all this is happening, on a sunny-if-threatening Saturday afternoon, as opening performance of TNC’s 28th annual borough-touring free summer street extravaganza, as alive and relevant and down-to-the-pavement New York City human as anything since O’Henry, Jimmy Cagney, and Mike Gold.

Bus driver, sorry, bus operator Michael David Gordon will have his hands and his heart full of headaches for the next 90 minutes, particularly in a world, or a nation, itself driven by the types Crystal Field and a considerable number of other people feel lack any hearts at all. We see some of those types here, in Madam Tussaud masks, one for Bush, one for Ashcroft, one for Powell, one for Rumsfeld.

Two reprobates (TNC veterans Primy Rivera and Craig Meade) bedevil the bus operator and mime the release of a pigeon on his bus just as a real, live pigeon hurtles over the cranky (moving scenery) and over our heads and whoosh, along the street toward First Avenue.

Our operator is so depressed by Iraq and other miseries of the times that he jumps in the river, only to come up with an enormous green bottle from which, when rubbed, there emerges . . . a genie! His name is Mark Marcante, and he has been Crystal Field’s right-hand man, also her left-hand man, for several dozen years now. He offers our bus operator a new lease on life via a trip to Paris, London, Rome, and other wonderful places.

The pregnant woman has her baby right on the bus, and it seems to take almost as long as an actual childbirth. Dancers dance. Acrobats acrobat. Cartwheelers cartwheel. The trumpet goes wah-wah. Everybody sings. Everybody claps. Everybody laughs, that’s the important thing. Kids and pretty girls on all sides collapse in laughter. I almost fall off my double milk crates.

Crystal, now in the City Council, her necktie flapping as the storm clouds gather, propagandizes for health care and neighborhood gardens. What would a TNC show be without neighborhood gardens? Life is worth living. Life goes on.

On Sunday, August 22, 2 p.m., weather and al-Qaeda permitting, after pit stops in Brooklyn and the Bronx, “Code Orange: On the M15” plays the Central Park Bandshell. Remaining Manhattan dates are September 11 (at Wise Towers, West 90th Street); September 18 (Tompkins Square Park); September 19 (Washington Square Park). Anything else you want to know, call (212) 254-1109, or click www.theaterforthenewcity.net. Quick, before the MTA raises the fare and our bus op has to jump back in the East River.

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